The Art of the Negative Split
Ah, it’s getting to be that time of year again… Marathon season! I just finished reading a marathon race report on another blog. It was like the twenty previous marathoning blogs I’ve read, and there will likely be twenty more tomorrow if I look hard enough…
“I was really excited and felt great, so I took it out a little bit faster than I planned…”
“…through the middle I was a little tired, but was looking forward to a strong finish…”
“…by mile 22 I had lost the will to live and was praying for a meteor to fall on me…”
Okay, I exaggerate. But only a little. For every marathoner that has ever run, there seems to be at least three marathon horror stories. I am constantly astounded by the number of people who run multiple marathons over the years, yet run them the same way… Fast out of the gate only to race into a road running version of the Bhutan Death March. And I know of what I speak as I have one such story myself. What I think is overlooked by novice and experienced runners alike is the importance of the negative split.
If you are running a marathon (or half marathon, 10K, or whatever) and you are doing it to impress folks on the cocktail circuit, or because Oprah did it, or because you are having a mid-life crisis, you can stop reading. That’s cool. Good luck and have fun with your running. A negative split is for people who who want to get from start to finish quickly.
Just so we are on the same page here, a negative split is the concept whereby you run the second half of your race faster than the first half. Simple concept, but not always simple to accomplish. Once thought to be the domain of only the elite runner, the negative split strategy is something I am CONVINCED has the potential to make every runner better, if they can pull it off.
I don’t think the negative split plays as big a roll in the shorter races. In my experience, 5K and 8K distances tend to be “gut it out” distances. You can go out and blow up in the first mile or mile and a half, and pretty much anyone can gut out the balance of the distance from there. It might not be fun, and it certainly isn’t easy. But it can be done. The negative split strategy comes into play starting at about the 10K distance, and becomes increasingly important the longer the race. (I will say as a disclaimer that I am not addressing ultra-marathoning here. The concept may extend to the world of the ultra, by I have no expertise there, and frankly I plan to keep it that way. Those guys are… eh, I’ll save that for another blog posting…) Races from the 10K and up tend to be as much about strategy and mental attitude as they are about strength and conditioning. Pacing, particularly SMART pacing, are what start to separate the good runners from the also rans.
So why is the negative split so hard? And why do so few runners manage to pull it off? I consistently find that there are two shortcomings that will undo most marathoners: 1) Putting too much emphasis on the long distance workouts, while simultaneously lessening the focus on speed and pace workouts and 2) mental errors.
Let’s tackle the easy one first…
If you’re like me, you circle a race date on the calendar, and you come up with a training plan. Depending on how fit you are when you start, this could range anywhere from as few as 14 weeks to as many as 22. I am betting if you are like me, after you have printed off that plan and you are looking at it all laid out in front of you, your eyes are instantly drawn to the “big number” runs… Those long but slow paced 14, 16, 18, 20 or more mile slogs. They can be tough, pounding grinds, but can leave you with an immense feeling of satisfaction. Those are the runs that on the surface seem most like the marathon you are preparing for. What many runners tend to look past are the equally important shorter but fast paced runs. Stuff like mile repeats, or ten mile tempo runs at faster than race pace, or hard fartleks. For whatever reason, many runners just aren’t grabbed by a speed workout that may only be eight miles in total. It may seem so inconsequential in fact as to be mistaken for just a regular run. Inevitably it seems like the inexperienced runners will more likely skip the shorter and faster workouts when work and family commitments inevitably compromise the workout schedule.
In my own personal horror story (also known as the 1996 Grandmas Marathon), I can say without question this is where I started to go wrong. I was primarily doing all my training solo and was intoxicated by the mileage. I circled those long runs on my mental calendar months in advance. But in between were these other runs. Tempo here. Ladder there. Some long intervals sprinkled in for good measure.
“C’mon,” I would think to myself. “That only totals six miles. I’m training for a marathon damn it!”
So wouldn’t I be better off just going out and slogging ten miles, or maybe 12? After all, a marathon is more about strength than speed, right? And wouldn’t that 12 look better in my log book anyway? That rationale made sense at the time, but when I lined up at the starting line I was three and a half hours away from realizing how bad a judgment I had made.
What I had traded off in my high mileage lust was the muscle memory need to run a sustained and controlled fast pace. I could run the fast pace, but it was neither sustainable nor controllable. It was more akin to flailing. Combine this fundamental lack of conditioning with preparation shortcoming #2, and you’ve got a deadly combination.
So what about that second problem… Mental errors? it seems like a simple thing to fix, but time and time again very fit, conditioned, and seemingly smart marathoners get tripped up by stuff that happens above the neck. I can relate a personal story from Boston:
A number of years ago I was discussing race strategy for the Boston Marathon with an acquaintance. “Matt” had done all the training I had, and we weren’t far away from race day. We were both shooting for something in the low 3 hour range, but we had a fundamental difference in how we were going to do it. Matt had looked at the course map, and knew that the first six or so miles were largely downhill. His plan was to take it out at a good pace and “bank” some time. He figured he might tire toward the end, but his banked time would allow him to back off the pace toward the end and still finish strong.
My plan was almost a mirror image. Take it out very slow, use the first five miles to more or less warm up, then just take it easy until the 16 to 18 mile mark.
Race day came, and for anyone who has been at the starting line of a marathon, you know the excitement… And Boston just magnifies that. The starting gun fired, and yes, Matt started banking his time… LOTS OF IT. All I know is passed him on Heartbreak Hill and he was barely moving. He still had an okay race, but struggled to a 3.10 after walking huge chunks of the closing miles. I finished in 2.59 with my fastest mile being the 24th.
What Matt learned that day was that banking time doesn’t work… The interest payment will kill you!
So why is the negative split so mentally hard to pull off?
A big part of it is the huge investment of time and training, combined with the excitement and adrenalin of race day. After all those weeks, all those miles, all that commitment, and here you stand, waiting for the gun to go off… And I’m telling you to go SLOOOOOW?!?!? Yeh, right! Well, that’s what i’m telling you. Sure, it can be very disconcerting.
One of the problems is you have to commit to your goal time right off the bat. If you are shooting for 3.10, that means you need to average around 7.15 per mile… So if I’m telling you to hit in the low eight minute range for your first three or four miles, chances are you won’t hit that magical 2.59 you are SECRETLY hoping for. Hey, I can dig that, but you’ve got to be honest with yourself. If you tear out at 6.50 pace through the first ten miles, chances are really good you won’t even see your 3.10 mark either.
For me, it makes sense to break the marathon into two sections… The first 16, and the last ten. The first section should be like a nice comfortably paced training run. Hook up with somebody to run with. Take turns drafting. Chit chat. Whatever. Just kick back and go easy. If you hit 16 and you’re starting to feel tired, you’re probably in trouble. You need to hit 16 feeling confident, and like you easily have another ten miles left in the tank.
Then ease into the last ten, confident that you are on target. No need to hammer down right away, but start pressing a little harder. By the time you are at eighteen or nineteen, you should be cruising. Personally I get a charge as I blast past all the people who are crashing and burning, and there are always lots of them!
So, what does it take to negative split?…
- Don’t skip the short and fast stuff. You will need it. If you drop the hammer with eight miles to go, you are going to need that quick leg turnover. Without it you may find yourself in trouble.
- Don’t get sucked up in the hype. Keep your head and stay cool on race day. Sure, it’s exciting, but stay focused.
- Be realistic. You have a better idea of what you are capable of running than anyone else. Don’t let your buddies talk you into a pace that’s too rich.
- Commit before the gun goes off. Know what time you are shooting for, and be committed to it. Don’t decide five miles in that you feel good and should shoot for a PR. I recommend being a minute or more SLOWER than your target average through at least the first three or four miles, and still keep it on the slow side through the halfway mark. If you hit the half marathon post at near your target average, you’re probably heading for trouble.
- Eat, drink, and be merry. Train with the gels and drinks you plan on using on race day, then be sure to keep the calories flowing in. If you need to stop and walk in order to get that cup of Gatorade down, do it! Those calories are worth their weight in gold in the closing miles.
Most importantly, have fun! Nobody likes to crash and burn, so kick back, relax, and let the race just come to you. Have faith in the course you have plotted for yourself, and stick with it! If you go out slow, you’ll have the late race legs to make back that time… But it just simply does not work the other way around.
So with a new marathon season on the horizon, now is the time to commit to racing smarter, not just faster!